Bowhead whales are supremely adapted to a life cycle spent entirely in the freezing, or near-freezing waters of the Arctic and sub-Arctic. Found in both northern Atlantic and Pacific waters, the species has evolved thick skin and blubber for insulation and a source of energy reserves, an enormous, strong and bowed head that can break through ice up to 1 m thick, and an ability to stay under water for over an hour at a time to swim beneath the ice 1,2. Although the bowhead is not the largest whale species, it is one the heaviest, and certainly the longest-lived. Evidence suggests that individuals can live up to 150, and perhaps even as long as 200 years2-4!
Once referred to as the ‘Greenland whale’, or the ‘Arctic right whale’, few commercial whale watching operations target this species because of its mostly remote habitat. However, because it is a predominantly coastal, shallow-water species, it can be viewed from shore in some parts of its range. Although not available to commercial whale watching, one of the longest standing population research projects on this species counts passing whales from an observation perch on a pressure ridge from the edge of shorefast ice in northern Alaska 5,6. The bowhead whale is also one of the few whale species still subject to an ongoing aboriginal subsistence hunt, managed by the International Whaling Commission.